The broad­cast­ers have achieved their HD dream as Face­book Live makes it a non­sense, writes Alan Burkitt-gray

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Face­book Live throws HD out of fo­cus

Two con­ti­nents are col­lid­ing. When this hap­pens on a ge­o­log­i­cal scale, you get ex­cit­ing moun­tain ranges such as the Alps or the Hi­malayas. When it hap­pens in the tele­coms and me­dia world, the re­sult is a cloud of mis­un­der­stand­ing and con­fu­sion.

The col­lid­ing con­ti­nents in this case are the old-school con­tent providers – we used to call them broad­cast­ers, if you re­mem­ber the term – and, on the other side of the nar­row­ing sea, the new world of in­stant video: Face­book Live, Youtube, Vimeo and so on.

The re­sult may be a moun­tain range but – let’s con­tinue this ge­o­log­i­cal metaphor for just another few words – it is more likely that one con­ti­nent will be sub­ducted un­der another. But which?

Let’s go back to plain English. The is­sues emerged in dis­cus­sions at the Ca­pac­ity North Amer­ica con­fer­ence in Toronto at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber. Three panel dis­cus­sions and one pre­sen­ta­tion on the first morn­ing showed clearly that the two con­ti­nents – sorry, just this once more – are pop­u­lated by peo­ple with com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences of the world, dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ings and dif­fer­ent ideas about the fu­ture.

There are the peo­ple whose roots come from the tra­di­tional world of broad­cast­ing, in­clud­ing the ca­ble and satel­lite chan­nels. For years they have been dreaming of a world of high def­i­ni­tion (HD) pic­tures bet­ter, clearer and brighter.

The trouble was, tele­vi­sion grew up in an ana­logue world when there was limited trans­mis­sion ca­pac­ity avail­able. Each black-and-white chan­nel had to be fit­ted within a few mega­hertz, and when colour was added in the 1960s that had to be done with­out re­design­ing the spec­trum. Flick­er­ing pic­tures were dis­played on bulky cath­ode-ray tubes that took up a whole cor­ner of the liv­ing room.

Fifty years of ana­logue

For 50 years that was that: from the coronation of Bri­tain’s Queen in 1953 to the Apollo moon land­ings to the fall of the Ber­lin wall and the hor­rors of 9/11, peo­ple watched in ana­logue, low-res­o­lu­tion tele­vi­sion.

It is hard to re­alise that flat-screen, large-screen, wide-screen, high-def­i­ni­tion TV is so re­cent. It is a prod­uct of the dig­i­tal age, with com­pres­sion tech­nol­ogy that al­lows ca­ble and satel­lite net­works and even ter­res­trial broad­cast sys­tems to carry dozens or hun­dreds of dig­i­tal chan­nels.

The broad­cast­ers have fi­nally achieved their dream. They are happy that we are liv­ing in that sci­ence-fic­tion world with TV sets hang­ing on the wall, de­liv­er­ing vivid pic­tures with stereo sound.

Now they – the broad­cast­ers and the set man­u­fac­tur­ers – are dreaming of the next up­grade, and the one af­ter that, and even the one af­ter that. Many broad­cast­ers are al­ready record­ing ma­te­rial in 4K, the first stan­dard to be called ul­tra-high def­i­ni­tion (UHD). That has pic­tures 3,840 pix­els wide and 2,160 pix­els high, four times as many as to­day’s HD. They want to fol­low that with 8K UHD, four times as many again, 7680 × 4320 pix­els.

It doesn’t stop. At the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas ear­lier this year, the in­dus­try’s UHD Al­liance an­nounced what they called Ul­tra HD Pre­mium – es­sen­tially UHD with bet­ter colour depth and im­proved dy­namic range.

In a few years TV screen res­o­lu­tion is go­ing from less than half a megapixel with stan­dard def­i­ni­tion – just a few years ago – to over 32 me­gapix­els with 8K HD, a 75-fold in­crease. Even with bet­ter com­pres­sion, that is go­ing to put some strain on the con­tent de­liv­ery net­works that move pro­grammes across the world.

How­ever, is this what the viewer wants? Not ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search com­pany IHS Markit, which has been mon­i­tor­ing a steady global de­cline in sales of TV sets. “To­tal an­nual TV ship­ments fell to 226 mil­lion units in 2015, a 4% year-over-year de­cline,” the com­pany re­ported in March.

Why? Some of the pan­el­lists at Ca­pac­ity North Amer­ica showed that they un­der­stand just how the mar­ket is chang­ing. Peo­ple are con­sum­ing me­dia in dif­fer­ent ways and they have dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions.

Take Micah Gel­man, di­rec­tor of video and a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Wash­ing­ton Post. That is a news­pa­per, of course, though he said at the con­fer­ence that “the Wash­ing­ton

A year ago I was on pan­els talk­ing about the death of live. Face­book changed all that” Micah Gel­man, di­rec­tor of video, Wash­ing­ton Post

Post and all other pub­lish­ers are work­ing in a post-text world”.

Many of these news­pa­per-run TV news ser­vices be­gan by ap­ing the ex­ist­ing com­mer­cial news chan­nels. News on the hour, ev­ery hour, with head­lines on the half hour.

But that’s not how peo­ple con­sume news these days. If you’re at a desk with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion all day, or have a smart­phone, you can keep up with the news, sports, fi­nance and gos­sip all day. You don’t gather round the fam­ily TV screen at a set hour to watch a carefully crafted 30 min­utes less time for ads and the weather.

In­stead, you keep an eye on your favourite sites. And, per­haps most im­por­tantly – de­pend­ing on your age – you also keep an eye on Face­book, Twit­ter and the other so­cial me­dia sites.

The Wash­ing­ton Post killed Wash­ing­ton Post Live, its TV news stream­ing ser­vice. “A year ago I was on pan­els talk­ing about the death of live,” said Gel­man. “Face­book changed all that.” Now the Post uses Face­book Live, the video add-on that Face­book started ear­lier in 2016.

It’s still early days, but Face­book Live has won over another broad­caster that uses it ex­clu­sively for its sports TV ser­vice. Glenn Har­vey is chair­man and CEO of Pro Play­ers Net­work, which cov­ers Amer­i­can foot­ball and basket­ball and in ear­lier days would have been called a sports chan­nel.

Qual­ity is not the de­cider

Pro Play­ers Net­work does not use ca­ble or satel­lite, still less ter­res­trial TV. It reaches its en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ers ex­clu­sively via Face­book Live. “We de­liver long-form video over Face­book,” said Har­vey at the sum­mit. “Face­book Live is our do­main.”

He took the de­ci­sion af­ter look­ing at the pop­u­lar­ity of the world’s big­gest web­sites. “Fox was at 1,100 in the world, Net­flix at 34,” he said, with­out cit­ing the source of his data. “Google was num­ber one and Face­book num­ber two.”

There’s a lim­i­ta­tion with Face­book. “We can only broad­cast in 720 [pix­els wide] now, but we are hav­ing dis­cus­sions with Face­book about qual­ity and wa­ter­marks. How­ever, the qual­ity is­sue is not as preva­lent in young con­sumers.”

They want to watch on their smart­phones, he said. They are not in­ter­ested in sit­ting down in the fam­ily liv­ing room and watch­ing an HD screen on the wall. The re­sult? “My cost of pro­gram­ming is a frac­tion of oth­ers’ but my au­di­ence equals theirs.”

And there are con­se­quences for the car­rier in­dus­try, too, he sug­gested. “Face­book will be the sec­ond largest car­rier on the planet,” said Har­vey.

So here we have it. On the one con­ti­nent, the tra­di­tional in­dus­try is still on the sofa; on the other, mil­len­ni­als are watch­ing sport on their phones.

If you’re con­fused, spare a lit­tle sym­pa­thy – pos­si­bly – for the US reg­u­la­tor, the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC). The law un­der which it op­er­ates takes lit­tle ac­count of broad­band and none of OTT, Alexi Mal­tas, a part­ner at law firm Ho­gan Lovells, at the event.

The FCC thinks of OTT as the com­pe­ti­tion. What does it think of TV on smart­phones? It’s more in­ter­ested in wor­ry­ing about whether it is ca­ble or in­ter­net pro­to­col, said Mal­tas.

Mean­while the con­ti­nents are grind­ing to­gether. But don’t ex­pect an Ever­est or Mont Blanc.

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